No. 3 South Carolina tops Mississippi St for 2nd SEC title
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Last to climb the ladder, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley made two cuts and pulled down the rest of the net.
She immediately put it around her neck and was still wearing it when she left the building.
If the Gamecocks keep playing the way they did in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Staley will have more chances take home some nylon.
A'ja Wilson had 19 points and 13 rebounds, her 12th double-double of the season, and the third-ranked Gamecocks handled No. 16 Mississippi State 66-52 on Sunday to win the SEC title for the second straight year.
''It means a great deal,'' Staley said. ''It means that we put our names in the history book in this tradition-rich conference.''
Tiffany Mitchell added 19 points and Khadijah Sessions chipped in 11 for the Gamecocks (31-1), who won their ninth consecutive game since losing to three-time defending national champion and top-ranked Connecticut a month ago.
With former football coach Steve Spurrier cheering from behind the bench, South Carolina became just the fourth team in SEC history to win both regular-season and tournament titles in back-to-back seasons, joining Georgia (1983-84) and Tennessee (1999-2000, 2010-11).
The Gamecocks also joined those same programs as the only ones to go undefeated in league play in the regular season and in the tournament. Georgia did it in 1986. The Lady Vols accomplished the feat in 1994 and 2011.
South Carolina's run was perhaps more impressive considering the SEC is poised to send a record nine teams to the NCAA Tournament. The field will be announced March 14.
The Gamecocks are a lock for a No. 1 seed, especially after Sunday's performance.
South Carolina took control late in the second quarter, closing the half with an 11-0 run and leading 33-21 at the break. Staley's team pushed the lead to 15 midway through the third quarter, but Victoria Vivians helped the Bulldogs (26-7) whittle it back to 10 in the fourth.
Vivians, who led Mississippi State with 26 points, made a driving layup, two free throws and a running one-hander that helped MSU close to 53-43.
But the Gamecocks responded, with Mitchell making a driving left-handed shot and then finding Wilson on the break for a layup.
Staley pulled her starters with 1:37 remaining, allowing them to get a standing ovation.
The celebration started a few minutes later, with blue, yellow and white confetti falling all around. The Gamecocks playfully tossed it at each other before getting a piece of the net one by one. They danced, posed for pictures and got to enjoy a title that had been expected all season.
''I wouldn't necessarily say we were holding back. I think we were being professional,'' Wilson said. ''I felt like we really deserved this win. I think that makes it 10 times better. That's the reason for us to celebrate.
''Throughout the season, wins are great. When you get a huge win like this, especially it being back-to-back, especially for our seniors as well, I feel like you don't have a choice but to enjoy the moment and live in the moment.''
Mitchell was honored as the tournament's Most Valuable Player after scoring 47 points in three games. Wilson and Vivians joined her on the all-tournament team, along with Kentucky's Makayla Epps and Tennessee's Diamond DeShields. Staley thought Sessions was snubbed. ''I think sometimes because our team has so many great players, the ones that really make an incredible impact aren't the ones that are highlighted, which is OK,'' Staley said.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have lost eight in a row against South Carolina. ... They were making their second appearance in the SEC title game and first since losing to Tennessee in 2000. ... Mississippi State has 52 wins the last two years, second in the league to South Carolina.
South Carolina: This was just the program's second SEC Tournament title game appearance. ... The Gamecocks won their three games in the SEC Tournament by a combined 53 points. ... They outscored Mississippi State 36-14 in the paint.
Mississippi State awaits its NCAA Tournament seeding and pairing.
South Carolina awaits its NCAA Tournament seeding and pairing.